A heart-shaped box of chocolates. A card with a teenage mutant ninja turtle on it. Stickers of princesses or Disney characters. A bag of colorful rubber bands for their Rainbow Loom. These are some common responses you’d get if you asked a parent what they think they should give their child on Valentine’s Day. While each of these gifts will give a child a brief bump in joy, the best way to show her true love is by teaching her how to express gratitude toward others and feel grateful. Doing so won’t only strengthen your relationship with your child, but it will also strengthen her relationships with other family members and friends. That’s because gratitude is the social glue that bonds people together. Here are five things you can start doing this Valentine’s Day to step out of the box and give your child the gift that keeps giving—gratitude.
1. Be What You Want Your Child to Be: Model thanking and giving for children. For example, this Valentine’s Day make sure your kids see your tears of appreciation and suffocating bear hug when your partner surprises you with a year’s worth of scheduled date nights. Further, encourage your child to thank, give, and be thoughtful toward friends. This could simply mean encouraging your child to give some of their dinosaur Valentine’s Day cards to friends who aren’t in their class.
2. Help Children Recognize the Value of Gifts: Encourage children to recognize the good intentions and sacrifice behind the benefits and acts of kindness they receive from others and the personal value of each gift. People who really see the personal value of gifts, the altruistic intentions of benefactors, and the cost to benefactors for providing those gifts are more grateful and happier than others—and kids are no exception. Help your children frame the kindnesses they receive in these terms. As our research shows (Froh, Bono, et. al, in press), teaching children when they’re young how to think gratefully helps grateful processing become a natural habit. But in the meanwhile it also makes for some fun and memorable conversations with your child.
3. Limit Media Exposure: Though letting your child watch yet another episode of Wally Kazaam makes it easier for you to work while you’re stuck inside on a snow day, it’s a poor use of your child’s time if your goal is to make them more grateful. Substitute idle TV time with creative acts for connecting positively with others. For instance, in addition to encouraging your teenager to text her friends Valentine’s Day wishes, you should also encourage her to thank her friends for their relationship. When your child then shares the “You’re my #1 Valentine. I love what we have!” text she got back from her friend, be sure to share in her joy and show her how expressing gratitude strengthened her friendship.
4. Set Limits on Materialism: It’s common for holidays to become ultra-commercialized to the point of becoming a mindless trap of gift exchanges. Valentine’s Day is certainly no exception. While it’s nice for kids to give their loved ones something on Valentine’s Day, it need not be extravagant (Moms and Dads, no swiping of your credit card, please). Instead, gifts should come from your child’s heart and show that your child was responsive to a recipient’s needs. So when you learn that your child’s friend lost her favorite book mark, encourage your child to make one that’s customized to their friend’s interests. Okay, not everyone will appreciate a bookmark made from pink paperclips and a duck feather. But your child’s friend will, and that’s what matters.
5. Counter Complaining: For some kids, especially teenagers, Valentine’s Day could be difficult. Some kids would rather live in a cave than be single. Thus, it’s incredibly important for parents to counter complaints by helping children appreciate the good in their lives. Much of our happiness is determined by the social comparisons we make. When we compare ourselves to people we think of as better than us (such as those with a boyfriend), we feel deprived. When we compare ourselves to people who are less fortunate than us (such as those who got dumped on Valentine’s Day in front of everyone at school), we feel grateful. When your child focuses on those who they feel have it better than them, remind them of those who are less fortunate. Recognizing that there are those less fortunate than them helps build empathy, gratitude and appreciation.